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Against ontological capture: Drawing lessons from Amazonian Kichwa relationality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 September 2021

Jarrad Reddekop*
Indigenous Studies, Camosun College, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada and Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador
*Corresponding author. Email:


This article offers an experiment in theorising within or across a ‘space’ of ontological disagreement – which, as numerous authors have contended, characterises much that is at stake in relations between states and Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Such ontological disagreements, I argue, contain radical potential for disrupting globally dominant and anthropocentric patterns of thinking and relating, and for generating alternatives. I substantiate this point with reference to the relational ontologies informing different Indigenous ways of analysing and practicing existence. Drawing on Amazonian Kichwa thinking and Anishinaabe accounts of treaties, I show how these relational ontologies recast the problem of how it is possible to relate with difference, in such a way as to fold an inter-human ‘international’ into a continuum of relations that include human-nonhuman ones. Distinct normative horizons emerge. I argue that non-Indigenous people can draw a range of provocations here concerning our constitution as selves and the political space in which we understand ourselves to possibly participate. I also claim, however, that this more transformative potential is predominantly squandered through processes of what I call ontological capture, which troublingly re-entrench dominant construals of reality and forestall a more radical questioning and re-patterning of accompanying lifeways.

Special Issue Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the British International Studies Association

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1 See, for example, Blaser, Mario, ‘Political ontology: Cultural studies without “culture”?’, Cultural Studies, 23:5–6 (2009), pp. 873–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Marisol de la Cadena, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds (London, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); Querejazu, Amaya, ‘Encountering the pluriverse: Looking for alternatives in other worlds’, Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 59:2 (2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Blaney, David L. and Tickner, Arlene, ‘Worlding, ontological politics, and the possibility of a decolonial IR’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 45:3 (2017)Google Scholar.

2 See the Introduction, this Special Issue.

3 Paula Sherman, ‘The friendship wampum: Maintaining traditional practices in our contemporary interactions in the Valley of the Kiji Sibi’, in Leanne Simpson (ed.), Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Resurgence, and Protection of Indigenous Nations (Winnipeg, Canada: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2008), p. 123.

4 At issue here is not collapsing the distinction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, but learning how to rethink and build upon that differential in positionalities in relational ways. In other words, the present article sketches one direction for ‘border dialogue’ through which it may be hoped that, borrowing Blaser's articulation, an alternate politics may be sought through becoming ‘dislocated from the modern enunciative position’. Mario Blaser, Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 23.

5 Aaron Mills uses a similar term (‘constitutional capture’) to describe the way liberal constitutionalism in Canada forces distinct Indigenous categories and logics into liberal terms. While my inflection emphasises the philosophical/ontological differences at play here rather than the language of divergent constitutionalisms, I take Mills to be addressing similar concerns to myself. See Aaron Mills, ‘Miinigowiziwin: All That Has Been Given for Living Well Together: One Vision of Anishinaabe Constitutionalism’ (PhD thesis, University of Victoria, 2019), p. 35.

6 Tamara Trownsell et al., ‘Recrafting International Relations through relationality’, E-International Relations (2019), available at: {}; Tamara Trownsell, ‘Interview – Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’, E-International Relations (2014), available at: {}.

7 Naeem Inayatullah and David L. Blaney, International Relations and the Problem of Difference (New York, NY: Routledge, 2004), p. 2.

8 Sheryl Lightfoot, Global Indigenous Politics: A Subtle Revolution (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), p. 5.

9 J. Marshall Beier, International Relations in Uncommon Places: Indigeneity, Cosmology, and the Limits of International Theory (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 221.

10 Here I am drawing, with significant liberties, on a lexicon formulated in Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism and State Ideological Apparatuses (London, UK: Verso, 2014).

11 There are other ways one might focus the question of ‘modernity’, and other variations of it (Marxist, corporatist, ‘multiple’ modernities, etc.). Assessing any of these in terms of their reliance on atomistic ontologies would be its own task, which I leave to another occasion.

12 My use of the term ‘atomism’ therefore should not be confused with the more narrow use familiar from ancient Mediterranean philosophy – for example, the philosophies of Leucippus, Democritus, or Lucretius.

13 Heidegger will call this projection ‘mathematical’ in the sense that mathesis denotes that which is already known in advance concerning the nature of the learnable, for example, ‘the body of the bodily, the plant-like of the plant, the animal-like of the animal, the thingness of the thing’. See Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Ferrell Krell (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993), p. 275.

14 See Tamara Trownsell, this Special Issue.

15 See Cudworth, Erika and Hobden, Stephen, ‘Complexity, ecologism, and posthuman politics’, Review of International Studies, 39 (2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Burke, Anthony et al. , ‘Planet politics: A manifesto from the end of IR’, Millennium, 44:3 (2016)Google Scholar.

16 See also Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1977), pp. 14–23; Freya Mathews, Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture (New York, NY: SUNY, 2005), pp. 7–19.

17 Blaser, Storytelling Globalization, p. 23.

18 See also Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus and Nexon, Daniel H., ‘Relations before states: Substance, process, and the study of world politics’, European Journal of International Relations, 5:3 (1999), pp. 293–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 See, for example, Selg, Peeter, ‘Two faces of the relational turn’, Political Science & Politics, 49:1 (2016), p. 28CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Milja Kurki, International Relations in a Relational Universe (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020); Emilian Kavalski, The Guanxi of Relational International Theory (New York, NY: Routledge, 2018); Pan, Chengxin, ‘Toward a new relational ontology in global politics: China's rise as holographic transition’, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 18 (2018), pp. 339–67Google Scholar; Querejazu, ‘Encountering the pluriverse’.

20 Blaser, ‘Political ontology’; de la Cadena, Earth Beings.

21 See also Cepek, Michael L., ‘There might be blood: Oil, humility, and the cosmopolitics of a Cofán petro-being’, American Ethnologist, 43:4 (2016), pp. 623–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Blaser, ‘Political ontology’, p. 877.

23 De la Cadena, Earth Beings, p. 63. Compare alternate possibilities explored by Brigg, this Special Issue; and Blaser, Storytelling Globalization, pp. 17–32.

24 Ibid., p. xxv.

25 Relationally speaking, one might rather assume difference as the starting point here, since the actors involved are constituted/anchored through different convergences of relations, and since particular relationships are always in an irreducible sense unique. But one may then ask what possibilities are open and how they may be navigated given that relational ground of differentiation.

26 Tamara Trownsell et al., ‘Differing about difference: Relational IR from around the world’, International Studies Perspectives (2020), p. 12

27 I draw here on academic literature and fieldwork undertaken through the Andes and Amazon Fieldschool (directed by Tod Swanson, Arizona State University) in Napo Province, Ecuador.

28 ‘Species’ is a bridging term here used to translate Kichwa thinking. It is not reducible to the English concept, since the underlying ontology is different. Not only plants and animals, but also mountains and stones (for example) count as speciated persons. This likely makes more sense to a Western readership if one thinks about personhood as a relatable actant for whom empathy is possible and who expresses a liminally imaginable mode of being, rather than as the atomistic moral person of Christian and subsequent philosophy in the West. See Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), pp. 95–109.

29 Swanson, Tod, ‘Singing to estranged lovers: Runa relations to plants in the Ecuadorian Amazon’, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture, 3:1 (2009), pp. 3665CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Swanson, Tod and Reddekop, Jarrad, ‘Looking like the land: Beauty and aesthetics in Amazonian Quichua philosophy and practice’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 85:3 (2017), pp. 685–9Google Scholar; Carolina D. Orr and Juan E. Hudelson, Cuillurguna: Cuentos de los Kichwas del Oriente Ecuatoriano (Quito, Equador: Houser, 1971), pp. 50–60.

30 Emotional acts to induce ‘empathy’ or ‘compassion’ in others are a notable feature of Kichwa conviviality that effectively holds (necessarily precarious) relations together. A key term is yakichina – to make someone feel love/sadness. Species barriers mute this feeling, although a range of practices (including remembering and interacting with nonhuman beings as runa or ‘people like us’) serve to increase conviviality in limited ways. People are nonetheless persistently careful not to overstep or collapse these boundaries.

31 Swanson and Reddekop, ‘Looking like the land’, pp. 682–708.

32 Strikingly, both Kichwa and Western ways of thinking here arise through a careful consideration of evidence – how animals behave, the fact that they do not speak in transparent ways, etc. What such observations can be interpreted to mean, or how observed behaviour is made articulable so as to confirm or disconfirm other conceptions, however, relies in either case on the (philosophical) ontological frameworks respectively assumed.

33 Ibid., pp. 685–9.

34 See also Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, ‘Exchanging perspectives: The transformation of objects into subjects in Amerindian ontologies’, Common Knowledge, 10:3 (autumn 2004), p. 475.

35 Swanson and Reddekop, ‘Looking like the land’, p. 694.

36 See chapters by Elsje Maria Lagrou, Luisa Elivra Belaunde, and Peter Gow in Joanna Overing and Alan Passes (eds), The Anthropology of Love and Anger: The Aesthetics of Conviviality in Native Amazonia (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), pp. 46–64, 152–69, 209–20.

37 Yacharishka is a reflexive past participle modification of the root verb yachana, ‘to know’ (often translated into Spanish as saber, but connoting I think a more bodily, immersive kind of knowing. It is notable that the word for a shaman is yachak – an agentive modification meaning ‘one who knows’).

38 Swanson and Reddekop, ‘Looking like the land’, pp. 684–8. See also Grimaldo Rengifo Vasquez, ‘The Ayllu’, in Frédérique Apffel-Marglin with PRATEC (eds), The Spirit of Regeneration: Andean Culture Confronting Western Notions of Development (New York, NY: Zed Books, 1998), pp. 89–123.

39 Swanson and Reddekop, ‘Looking like the land’, pp. 691–5.

40 Ibid.; Francesca Mezzenzana, ‘Movement and human-nonhuman relationships among the Runa (Ecuadorian Amazon)’, Social Anthropology, 26:2 (May 2018), p. 238; Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013), p. 65.

41 Swanson and Reddekop, ‘Looking like the land’, pp. 704–96; Tod Swanson, ‘Weathered character: Envy and response to the seasons in Native American traditions’, The Journal of Religious Ethics, 20:2 (autumn 1992), p. 280.

42 Glen Coulthard, Red Skin White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), p. 60.

43 Kiera L. Ladner, ‘Governing within an ecological context: Creating an AlterNative understanding of Blackfoot governance’, Studies in Political Economy, 70 (spring 2003), p. 125; Lightfoot, Sheryl and MacDonald, David, ‘Treaty relations between Indigenous peoples: Advancing global understandings of self-determination’, New Diversities, 19:2 (2017), p. 30Google Scholar.

44 Beier, International Relations in Uncommon Places, p. 221.

45 A point inter-resonant in interesting ways with ecologically oriented posthumanist and other relational explorations in IR. See Cudworth and Hobden, ‘Complexity, ecologism, and posthuman politics’, pp. 663–4; Kurki, International Relations in a Relational Universe, pp. 133–4.

46 See also Arlene B. Tickner, and Amaya Querejazu, ‘Weaving worlds: Cosmopraxis as relational sensibility’, International Studies Review (2021), p. 10, available at: {DOI: 10.1093/isr/viaa100}.

47 One classic (if human-centred) version of such an argument is Marx on ‘commodity fetishism’; Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: Volume I (New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 1990), p. 165.

48 See also Heidegger, ‘The question concerning technology’, p. 24.

49 Swanson and Reddekop, ‘Looking like the land’, p. 696.

50 Ladner, ‘Governing within an ecological context’, pp. 127, 130.

51 Ibid., pp. 139, 143, 147.

52 Borrows uses the Anishinaabe term akinoomaagewin, which literally means pointing to the earth and taking direction from it, to describe this practice. John Borrows, Law's Indigenous Ethics (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2019), p. 38.

53 See Karena Shaw, Indigeneity and Political Theory: Sovereignty and the Limits of the Political (New York, NY: Routledge, 2008), pp. 50–8.

54 Michel Foucault, ‘Society Must Be Defended’: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976, trans. David Macey (New York, NY: Picador, 2003), pp. 99–111.

55 See also Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 171.

56 Michael Asch, On Being Here To Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2014), p. 76; Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Dancing On Our Turtle's Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence (Winnipeg, Canada: Arbeiter Ring Publishing Books, 2011), p. 106.

57 Simpson, Dancing On Our Turtle's Back, pp. 106–11; Asch, On Being Here To Stay, pp. 73–101, 117, 124–5; Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark, ‘Changing the treaty question: Remedying the right(s) relationship’, in John Borrows and Michael Coyle (eds), The Right Relationship: Reimagining the Implementation of Historical Treaties (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2017), p. 257.

58 Lightfoot and MacDonald, ‘Treaty relations between Indigenous peoples’, p. 30; Simpson, Dancing On Our Turtle's Back, p. 109; Heidi Stark, ‘Changing the treaty question’, p. 263.

59 Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Dancing On Our Turtle's Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence (Winnipeg, Canada: Arbeiter Ring Publishing Books, 2011), pp. 106–11. This idea of causing empathy in others is strikingly resonant with the Kichwa term yakichina. See fn. 30.

60 Aaron Mills/Waabishki Ma'iingan, ‘What is a treaty? On contract and mutual aid’, in Borrows and Coyle (eds), The Right Relationship, p. 236.

61 Lightfoot and MacDonald, ‘Treaty relations between Indigenous peoples’, p. 30.

62 Mills, ‘What is a treaty?’, p. 242.

63 Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism and State Ideological Apparatuses.

64 Mills, ‘What is a treaty?’, p. 233; Alfred, Taiaiake and Corntassel, Jeff, ‘Being Indigenous: Resurgences against contemporary colonialism’, Government and Opposition, 40:4 (2005), pp. 609, 612–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Leroy Little Bear, ‘Jagged worldviews colliding’, in Marie Battiste (ed.), Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision (Vancouver, Canada: University of British Colmbia Press, 2000), p. 84.

65 Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem To Late Liberalism (London, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), p. 28.

66 This question is usually framed to consider environmental impacts insofar as they impact humans. How might a new oil pipeline impact fisheries and the species that directly matter for them? Is human health adversely affected, such as through the pollution of water systems and the local food chain? Are human cultural rights impacted insofar as environmental impacts curtail the ability for Indigenous groups to engage in culturally important practices? See Burke et al., ‘Planet politics’.

67 Shaw, Indigeneity and Political Theory, pp. 17–38.

68 On the anthropocentric philosophical provenance of modern discourses of rights, see Costas Douzinas, Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis: Greece and the Future of Europe (Malden, UK: Polity, 2013), p. 85.

69 From a certain point of view, the requirement for states to obtain ‘free, prior, and informed consent’ from Indigenous peoples concerning administrative and legislative measures affecting them (Art. 19) and resource development projects affecting their lands (Art. 32.2) is indeed one of the more radical steps taken in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, UN Doc. A/RES/61/295, 13 September 2007. I discuss this document further below.

70 Povinelli, Geontologies, pp. 106–10.

71 For a helpful history of human rights and the particular concept of the human that informs this tradition, see Costas Douzinas, The End of Human Rights: Critical Legal Thought at the Turn of the Century (Oxford, UK: Hart Publishing, 2000).

72 See also Douzinas, Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis, p. 85.

73 Wendy Brown, ‘Subjects of tolerance: Why we are civilized and they are the barbarians’, in Hent de Vries and Lawrence E. Sullivan (eds), Public Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2006); Bruno Latour, War of the Worlds: What About Peace?, trans. Charlotte Brigg (Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2002), pp. 5–16.

74 Sheryl Lightfoot, Global Indigenous Politics: A Subtle Revolution (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016), pp. 13–17, 35.

75 See de la Cadena, Earth Beings, p. 160; Salmond, Anne, ‘The tears of Rangi: Water, power, and people in New Zealand’, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 4:3 (2014), pp. 301–03CrossRefGoogle Scholar. As Salmond essentially shows, to say this does not mean that Indigenous people do not experience difficult ‘double-binds’ in employing the language of rights resulting precisely from this danger of ontological capture, especially in the context of power asymmetries characteristic of Indigenous-state relations.

76 How something like ontological capture might be encountered, and associated risks experienced and navigated from an Indigenous vantage point, would be another question that would have to be pursued in its own right elsewhere. Here I limit myself to a diagnosis that reflects and speaks to my own positionality in this relation.

77 This phenomenon is reminiscent of Heidegger's notions of ‘idle talk’ and ‘average everydayness’. Most of the time and as part of everyday functioning and interaction, for the early Heidegger, we cover over the questionability of being and beings through the everyday circulation of idle talk that assumes and assures us with a false sense of already understanding everything. See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York, NY: SUNY, 1996), pp. 158–9.

78 Blaser, Storytelling Globalization, p. 234.

79 Kurki, International Relations in a Relational Universe, pp. 3–4, 106; Cudworth and Hobden, ‘Complexity, ecologism, and posthuman politics’, p. 655.

80 Asch, On Being Here To Stay, p. 125.

81 Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed, 2013), p. 214.

82 See Ingold, The Perception of the Environment, pp. 89–110; Bird-David, Nurit, ‘“Animism” revisited: Personhood, environment, and relational epistemology’, Current Anthropology, 40:Supplement (1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

83 Swanson and Reddekop, ‘Looking like the land’, pp. 705–06.

84 Coulthard, Red Skin White Masks, p. 60.

85 Blaser, Storytelling Globalization, p. 231.

86 Lightfoot and MacDonald, ‘Treaty relations between Indigenous peoples’, p. 26.

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